The Promethean Curse: Is Technology Harming Us or Liberating Us?
We don’t need better tools; we need better stories.
One of the possible definitions for the word Prometheus is forethought — to look ahead, to imagine. And if we are liberal with this definition, then, perhaps, it’s also about taking what’s in that imagination and bringing it down to the realm of mortals, the material world we occupy.
In Greek mythology, the story goes, that Prometheus was the great Titan who created humanity from clay and inspired the birth of civilization. Using his forethought — or maybe his imagination — he defied the Gods, stealing their fire and giving it to us so we could use it for our collective good.
This act, however, didn’t go unpunished. Zeus, the king of the Olympian Gods, was harsh with his sentence. He bound Prometheus to a rock for this daring transgression, where one of his eagles would fly over to eat Prometheus’ liver. This liver would then grow back the next day, so that it could be eaten again and again, over and over for eternity.
In the literal sense, the story is what it is — a myth. In the metaphorical sense, however, it can be seen as a warning. If we replace the idea of literally stealing fire from the Gods with the idea of creatively imagining new ways of harnessing the power of our environment in our mind and then using that to build technology in the world, we paint a different picture. If we then consider Prometheus’ punishment (having his liver eaten) for doing this and realize that, in ancient Greece, the liver was thought to be the seat of human emotions and that his punishment was metaphorically to have his emotions destroyed for this transgression, we, again, paint a different picture.
One of the most important questions of the 21st century is the question of technology. We all know that we now live in a technological age, unlike anything we have ever seen before. The computer, the internet, and the smartphone revolutionized everything about how we interact with one another, and by historical standards, they did so incredibly fast. And by all visible evidence, it doesn’t look like this movement is done. That said, the same technology that allows us to talk to our loved ones across miles of space is also using algorithms to manipulate our behavior. We are more liberated, more powerful, than ever before, but in other ways, we are also more exposed, more vulnerable, than we have ever been.
But at its core, what exactly is technology? Today, we think of a computer as technology, but in the time of the Promethean myth, fire was a technology. Writing was a technology. In a sense, technology is anything that augments the power of the human body. With fire, instead of using our body’s internal mechanisms to establish homeostasis in the cold, we could do so by manipulating the energy sources of the Earth. With writing, instead of using our voice to talk to one person, or a group of people, through books, we could talk to millions of people, in different places, at different times.
We forget that these things are technologies because we have a historically myopic viewpoint. They are so embedded into the reality we are born into, and we function so fluidly with them, that they feel natural. A computer and a smartphone are too new for that. That said, perhaps, they are indeed different from those old technologies, and perhaps they are leading us down a road that will be hard to come back from.
One of the differences between today’s technologies and older technologies is that we are interconnected as a whole species in a way today that we weren’t before. Whereas a fire could only affect someone within a say, five-foot radius, the internet has connected us into a whole in which every cause and every effect ripples and impacts things far away from the original source. Not only that, but our technologies are also more powerful. A fire might be able to scare away a predator in the wild in a hunter and gatherer society, but a nuclear bomb has the potential to blow up the whole of civilization.
With all of this considered, over time, it’s apparent that technology is about leverage and power. It is about overcoming the constraints of the physical environment with increasingly sophisticated tools. But like any tool of power, the more it is engaged without the right leadership, the right stories, the harder it becomes, the more devoid of life it becomes — the more it acts for the sake of acting rather than for a meaningful outcome.
If technology is about augmenting the human body so that we can overcome the challenges of the physical environment, then culture — our network of interconnected selves — is about the stories of why we should overcome the challenges of the physical environment. Technology is a tool of thought and imagination. Culture is a product of emotion and memory.
With the slow decline in religious belief since the Age of Enlightenment (at least in the Western world), technology and its power have finally decoupled from the hold of culture and its stories. That was likely the indirect catalyst of the industrial revolution, and indeed the computer revolution, that has improved our material well-being so substantially. Without stories to contain its power, technology can grow unchecked. That said, there will inevitably come a point when this kind of growth outdoes itself, without the right checks and balances in place, without the right stories to guide it.
As the late culture and media critic Neil Postman wrote in his book Technopoly: “Stated in the most dramatic terms, the accusation can be made that the uncontrolled growth of technology destroys the vital sources of our humanity.” Culture, its stories, the emotions contained within, are what make us human — they capture our aches and our yearnings.
Technology can be a wonderful tool for the betterment of our species and our civilization, but technology itself can’t be the guide for too long because power, though unbiased in its most elementary form, inherently leans towards domination and harm rather than liberty when it doesn’t have the right kind of people, or the right kind of stories, in charge of managing it.
For stealing away the first great technology, the fire that gave us civilization, Prometheus suffered deeply by giving up his liver (or his emotional core) every single day of his life. He wanted more with his foresight, so he took it, and then he paid a steep price for that. By no means does the myth tell a story of Prometheus having any bad intentions, and yet, the consequences were inevitable, and they were harmful and damaging.
There is a lesson here: Technology can be a tool for harm even if we don’t intend for it to be, but it can only be a tool for good if we meaningfully direct it with our humanity, our emotions, and our stories. In the modern, interconnected world of the 21st century, this asymmetry means that the downside is far more accessible than the upside. The downside doesn’t need encouragement, whereas the upside does.
Just as the internet has tangled our actions and behaviors across space and time, so it has also interconnected our selves, our collective culture. Right now, this collective culture is confused. It’s not sure what to believe. There are factions everywhere, each with their own belief systems, each with their own values. In some places, these are encouraging and optimistic. In others, they are tearing themselves apart with their own pessimism. In either case, we have lost touch with the broader stories, with the broader visions, that once united us in spite of our differences.
Fortunately, if we are to model ourselves after a great Greek myth, we have to consider that the story of Prometheus didn’t end with him laying there, having his liver chewed up for eternity. Prometheus was eventually freed by someone else in the story: the divine hero Heracles.
What we need in our modern technological world today isn’t more of the same — a mindless kind of walk towards a better material future without any consideration of the context surrounding that future. That is important, and it is useful, and it has a place. But it can also lead us down a path that we would have a hard time turning back from if we don’t stop to think a little deeper about who we really are and what we are really yearning for, first, individually, and then, relationally and collectively.
On its own, technology is agnostic — it simply provides a function with some kind of utility. That function can just as well cause harm as it can liberate. The stakes, however, have never been higher. And if we want to point it in the direction of mass flourishing rather than towards the Promethean curse, then we are going to need something more than just a tool with a function. We are going to need stories — about who we are beyond the surface of our differences, and perhaps more importantly, why we do this.
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